Nick Nolte, Sober!

RUNNING TIME 97 minutes
WRITTEN BY Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum, John Sayles
STARRING Nick Nolte, Mary-Louise Parker, Martin Short

I suggest you see The Spiderwick Chronicles accompanied by a small child. Without the 7-year-old next to me, I probably wouldn’t have a clue what it’s all about. I still don’t. But the enthusiasm of the audience under 10 at the screening I attended was contagious. They sat rapt, soundless and well-behaved, like they were in church. They didn’t even scream when a monstrous 10-foot frog called Mulgarth that looks like a junior Jabba the Hut turned into Nick Nolte. That was pretty scary, if you ask me, and I don’t mean the frog.

Apparently, The Spiderwick Chronicles are beloved, best-selling fantasy adventures that sit in the bookcases of imaginative children right next to their Harry Potter books. Condensed at considerable cost into one movie, the story begins when an old man named Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn, looking a bit like Hans Christian Anderson) puts the finishing touches on his life’s work, a leather-bound tome of gothic tales that spills the secrets of creatures from another world. A fate worse than death awaits anyone who opens it. Suddenly the heavens open, lightning strikes, he is whisked away in a squall of fairy dust and his only daughter is dragged off to the nuthouse. The Spiderwick Chronicles remain under lock and key in a secluded old mansion in the woods, guarded by a loyal “Brownie” named Thimbletack (the voice of Martin Short). Visible to humans only when he wants to be, Thimbletack’s sole purpose in life: Protect that book against all intruders. It’s a job Thimbletack does superbly for 80 years.

The intruders are a family of New Yorkers who can no longer afford the rent. They include newly divorced Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker), a relative of the Spiderwicks; her daughter, Mallory (Sarah Bolger); and her 15-year-old twins, Simon and Jared (both played by the dangerously too-adorable but always camera-ready Freddie Highmore, Johnny Depp’s inspiration for Peter Pan in Finding Neverland). Strange things happen instantly. There’s salt on the windowsills. Enchanted critters live inside the walls. Hobgoblins threaten, the septic followers of evil forces led by the villainous, chameleonlike Mulgarth are working day and night to steal the sacred book and rule the universe. Fairies and humans alike are safe only as long as they stay inside the circle that surrounds the house. The only person who can help them is dotty Aunt Lucinda, who has grown up to be the great Joan Plowright. No one is safe against the ogre, who has only one goal—to become the most powerful monster in the universe. The charms, potions and spells are all contained in that sacred book, and now that little Freddie Highmore has read it, the horrors that await him make for a brew of breathless entertainment as one crisis follows the next.

Director Mark Waters distills maximum suspense from the antic plot twists, aided by animation, puppets and some pretty awesome computer magic. Anyone over 15 may feel gorged on a diet of buttercream frosting. Be forewarned: Acid reflux is almost guaranteed. But the Lilliputians among us will get their money’s worth. For a story aimed at the moppet market, The Spiderwick Chronicles is one that holds the interest without unbalancing the I.Q.

Nick Nolte, Sober!